Even though I am free of the demands and expectations of everyone, I have voluntarily become a servant to any and all in order to reach a wide range of people: religious, nonreligious, meticulous moralists, loose-living immoralists, the defeated, the demoralized—whoever. I didn’t take on their way of life. I kept my bearings in Christ—but I entered their world and tried to experience things from their point of view. I’ve become just about every sort of servant there is in my attempts to lead those I meet into a God-saved life. I did all this because of the Message. I didn’t just want to talk about it; I wanted to be in on it!
(1 Cor. 9:19-23, The Message)
I’ve been thinking a lot about how Paul sought to be “all things to all people” so that he could build relationships with them and hope that they might trust Jesus. I particularly like the way Peterson paraphrased it in The Message (see above). Even though Paul had the freedom to do whatever he felt was necessary, Paul modified his behavior so as not to offend the people he was with. When he was with the Jews, he wouldn’t go eating a big slice of ham, even though he had the freedom to do so. When he was with the Gentiles, he wouldn’t berate them for not being circumcised and expect them to be like him.
So was Paul a “culture chameleon,” changing his stripes depending on who he was with? Weren’t we told in youth group that this was a bad thing? Haven’t we always been told that we should stand out and be different and not look like the world? Aren’t we supposed to be pointing out the errors of the world and making a difference?
I think this is really a “both/and” kind of thing. Balance is a beautiful thing, is it not?
We have to live our lives in obedience to what God has asked of us. Each follower of Christ has a special calling on his or her life, certain groups of people that he or she will be most effective among, and personality traits and talents that will support him or her in those particular endeavors. None of us is just like another. Generally speaking, we will have the same message but a myriad of ways of conveying it. My unique voice and point of view will resonate with people that perhaps yours won’t.
At the same time, however, that doesn’t mean that I can be a total jerk to certain groups of people (followers of Christ or not) that I don’t particularly like or agree with. It doesn’t mean I can come down on you for hanging out with them. It doesn’t mean that I pass judgment on you and question your every word and move if you have felt called to love that group of people. I have to trust God enough to let Him be the Holy Spirit to you and not try to take that role myself.
“But what will people think of me if I hang out with (insert group of people here)? Won’t they think I’m one of them?” Well, maybe. Jesus got called all sorts of things and people thought all kinds of incorrect things about Him simply based on who He spent time with. So yeah, people (even other Christ-followers) may label you something you aren’t. They might assume you’re “sinning” right along with the group of people you’re trying to love. But their opinions really can’t stop you. Not if you are following God’s call on your life to reach them.
Besides, you’re not going to be taking on their way of life; you’re going to “keep your bearings in Christ.” The point is, you will be entering their world to “experience things from their point of view.” You’re going to attempt to see things the way they do. You’re going to try to empathize with their feelings. You’re going to try to figure out what motivates them, what hurts them, what offends them, what makes them joyful. You’re going to spend a lot of time with them in order to reach this goal. And in the process, you will have earned the right to be heard. They just might actually believe you when you tell them you love them, and that Jesus does, too.
At the same time, you’ll need to remember that not everybody is going to understand what the heck you’re doing. You’ll need to find your self-esteem in God and not people’s approval. You’ll also need to deal gently with the people who misunderstand you, and be aware that there may be certain things like particular actions or phrases that are offensive to them. Know your audience as best you can, and do everything you can to live peaceably with all people (Romans 12:18).
Wow. This is a tough balance. Be true to who you are and your mission in Christ AND at the same time be mindful of who you’re with? Stay true to your calling, not walking on eggshells around those who judge you WHILE still being sensitive to them? Definitely an ongoing, developing balance that only the Holy Spirit can bring to a person’s life.
So. Maybe being a “culture chameleon” isn’t such a bad thing. Some people call the art of knowing how to communicate truth without being offensive tact. Most of us could probably stand to have a little more of it. Maybe we could get so good at it we could even be accused of “speaking the truth in love.”